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EU dodges bullet with Macron, but real challenge lies ahead

President-elect must heal France while revitalizing Europe

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President-elect Emmanuel Macron, left, with outgoing President Francois Hollande at a ceremony Monday to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Sunday's presidential runoff saw French voters reject Marine Le Pen of the anti-European Union, far-right National Front and instead hand pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron a mandate for change. This hopeful sign, though, is just an early step in a long global struggle to mend deep economic and social rifts.

Macron entered the courtyard of the Louvre museum in Paris late on election night to the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the EU anthem. He looked tense during his victory speech as he spoke of the immense challenges ahead.

Winds of change

The Fifth Republic, France's current government, was created in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle, who strengthened the presidency to restore order. Nearly six decades later, the clash between Macron and Le Pen -- one seeking to become the nation's youngest-ever head of state at 39, the other to become its first female leader -- symbolized the shock waves that have rocked the political foundations of other major countries in addition to France itself.

The campaign was short but intense, packed with twists and turns. Candidates from the mainstream Socialist and Republican parties, which have been riven by infighting and tarred by scandal, suffered heavy defeats in the first round of voting last month amid disappointment with the presidency of Socialist Francois Hollande. Fears arose that the trend that brought the British vote to exit the EU and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president would continue in France, which like both countries played a leading role in the development of modern democracy.

This popular desire for change fortunately manifested in the victory by Macron, an open supporter of the EU. Macron has never held elected office and belongs to neither of the major political parties. He launched his own political movement -- En Marche!, or "On the Move!" -- in April 2016. The former investment banker and alumnus of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, an elite civil service academy, has a knack for winning hearts and minds.

Macron pledged to pull France out of its economic malaise -- unemployment is at 10% -- and make the country more competitive, in keeping with his ultimately unsuccessful calls for reform as economy minister under Hollande. With his victory and a similar result in the Netherlands' general election this March that kept the far right in check there, continental Europe thus far has narrowly repulsed the wave of anti-globalist pressure sweeping across the world. His victory has let the EU and the world, not to mention financial markets, breathe a sigh of relief.

A tall order

But it would be far too soon to say the storm has passed. Macron won in a landslide with 66% of the vote, yet many voted for him simply to keep Le Pen out of power.

The president-elect's faction will be starting from literally zero when elections for the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament, are held in June. Turning a year-old political movement into the country's largest party in just a month is a nigh-impossible feat that will likely be beyond Macron. The centrist may need to compromise with the left or the right to form a government.

The French government's stability will be a factor in upcoming European votes. Germany's general election in September is a race between Chancellor Angela Merkel and center-left challenger Martin Schulz, both pro-EU. But anti-European sentiment has a firmer foothold in Italy, which will hold a general election by early next year.

The U.K. will hold a general election next month as Prime Minister Theresa May seeks a stronger mandate for Brexit. The EU's ability to dictate terms will depend on close cooperation between Paris and Berlin.

Macron cannot revitalize a wounded EU by himself. Such proposed organizational changes as appointing a joint eurozone finance minister or drafting a common budget will run up against public suspicion about further EU bloat. Even if France and Germany work together more closely, turning the economy around will be essential to making progress on reform.

France is a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Macron will need to hold his own when dealing with leaders with whom he is unlikely to get on well, such as Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Macron promised to respect the views of those who voted for the National Front out of anger and anxiety. He now faces the difficult task of mending a fractured society and stirring hope among the public -- challenges far from exclusive to France.

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